A Calendar of Days
by Sue Ellis
Cameron’s harvested wheat fields lay waiting for tillage. He could plow blindfolded, he thought, having memorized the sweep of every hilltop and valley on the farm. He drove the tractor with the six-bottom plow onto the nearest forty-acre section of his hundred and sixty acres and lowered the plowshares. Twisting around in the seat, he made sure that the ground was properly sliced and rolled, turning wheat stubble underground and leaving mounded, lineal rows of black earth in its place. Satisfied, he slipped on sound-dampening ear muffs and relaxed into the muted squeak and clatter of the steel tracks that propelled him. Once the field was outlined, he followed the inside furrow of the previous round as a guide, working turnaround loops on the sharp corners as gracefully as a skater on a frozen pond, dust swirling around him. Lulled by the mundane nature of the task, his thoughts drifted to other subjects, and inevitably, to Lila.
She’d come to his house on a fall day like this one in 1969, and knocked on the door as he ate his lunch. “I’m glad someone’s home,” she said, relief evident in her expression, and raised the empty gas can she carried to explain the reason for her visit. He sat down on the porch and put his boots back on, then took the can from her and headed toward the gas tank. She followed, tie-dyed skirt trailing in the dust.
“I’m Lila,” she said.
“Cameron,” said Cameron.
“It’s beautiful here, and I love the wind. It’s almost constant, isn’t it.”
“Almost,” he said. “Although I’ve seen hot days during harvest when you couldn’t catch a breeze to save your soul.”
When she smiled, he saw that she was more handsome than pretty, with jutting cheekbones and graceful posture. He guessed her age to be early-twenties. The state route in front of his place saw a stream of traffic on weekends when Washington State University students from Pullman visited the larger city of Spokane. It being Sunday, he assumed that Lila was one of them. He felt awkward and dazzled standing beside her, like the quintessential clod he imagined himself to be—the progeny of geriatric parents who’d both passed on by the time he was twenty-three. They liked to brag that he was an adult at ten. He switched churches after they died because he liked the Presbyterian minister better than the Lutheran’s, but other than that his life continued as it always had, taking care of the farm.
Lila’s car wouldn’t start. He towed it to his shop, telling her to take shelter in the house as a light rain began to fall. He tinkered with the engine, discovering that it needed a part he couldn’t manufacture. He found her at the dining table taking in the view: his mother’s vegetable garden, which he still maintained, and beyond, the expanse of hilly fields blending into a copse of poplars. She rode with him to Colfax to buy the part and watched as he installed it.
She appeared again the next weekend—flagged him down from the road as he plowed. He cut the tractor’s engine and climbed down.
“I’m helping with a fundraiser sponsored by the Arts Department at WSU,” she said. “Would you consider letting us take aerial photos of your fields?”
“I don’t see why not,” said Cameron. “How are you going to use them?”
“They’ll be featured in this year’s calendar.”
Silence intervened as they stood at the edge of the field, he calculating the time required to finish his task, she oblivious to her intrusion, shading her eyes with a forearm across her brow, lost in the swollen hills and complacent lowlands of the Palouse landscape. She was so caught-up in her thoughts that Cameron began to worry that he’d have to initiate a new topic.
“Do you suppose I could ride on the tractor?” she said. “I’d love to watch how it’s done.”
The seat was only meant for one person, but Cameron had ridden with his Dad when he was a kid, happily foregoing comfort for the experience. He gave Lila his ear muffs, relieved that he wouldn’t have to engage in small talk while her nearness threatened coherent thought. When the ride ended, she jumped lightly down, then turned to thank him.
“Your fields are so beautiful, Cam,” she said, and he was struck dumb by his luck—that she could find anything appealing about either himself or his fields—and that she’d abbreviated his name to suit her. She finished the fall quarter at WSU and they were married just after Thanksgiving.
He was in his mid-thirties then, she twenty. They were a source of gossip among the locals, which he easily ignored although it was hard for Lila, who loved people and social events. He met her parents, which was awkward only until they witnessed Lila’s pride at being a farmer’s wife, and her unmistakable devotion to Cam. Lila had two miscarriages, devastating events that prevented Cam from protesting when she told him she didn’t want to try again. They were busy enough between church and farm, he assured her, and there was her part time teaching position at the Colfax Elementary School.
Time eventually blunted some of Lila’s sharp, bright edge, a fact that didn’t escape Cam. He knew he was partly responsible for the change in her, but couldn’t access a more garrulous version of himself. He tried to make it up to her in other ways: annual vacations, a remodeled kitchen—a new car now and then. They’d been married twenty-six years when he came in from the field one day and discovered her absence. He sensed it when he walked into the house—an emptiness that pervaded the place. She’d left a note:
“I don’t want to hurt you, Cam, but it wouldn’t be right to lie to you. I ran into an old friend, a man I’d given up for lost before I met you. I won’t explain any further except to say that I will always cherish my time with you. Please understand that life eventually leads us onto the path we were meant to follow.
It didn’t occur to him to check the bank account for several days, and when he did he discovered that she’d taken very little. As the months stretched into a year, he began to accept that she wasn’t coming back. Sometime in the eighteen years since, his sorrow had shriveled into the driving force that kept him stubbornly working, never mind that he was well past retirement age. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d gone to church.
He finished plowing at dusk and turned the tractor toward home, leaving a perpendicular mar on the otherwise perfect, centripetal pattern he’d left on the field. The bite plate his dentist insisted he wear wasn’t doing enough to ease the pain of his jaws. He took it out and dropped it onto the tracks and let their forward motion crush it into the ground.
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Sue Ellis lives and writes in Washington State. Some writing credits include Prick of the Spindle, Rose and Thorn Journal, Front Porch Review, and The Cynic Online Magazine.